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If you live outside Quebec, chances are you have never heard of Bill 21, whose aim is to keep the province, and all people working in its name, secularist by forbidding the wearing of any overt visual symbols representing any kind of religion, including jewelry (such as the crucifix), and items that reflect a religion’s tradition (such as the veil or the turban).
If you live in Quebec, you probably can’t stand another discussion on the topic, although, to be honest, it’s not much of a discussion when the two sides just spew their arguments and then take off running.
Both groups have attempted to make theirs a case of ethics and morals. One side claims that it is crucial that all people employed by the province – judges, police, teachers – be free of any visible signs of religious influence, while the other champions freedom of religion as a basic right that trumps, well, pretty much all others.
As if religious neutrality could be attained by the simple removal of a couple of items worn by the person in question. And as if there were not already serious asterisk marks next to all our basic freedoms.
For all their touting that “it’s a question of principle” both sides are completely and utterly off the mark.
Let’s begin with our freedoms, specifically in regard to employment. We have already accepted a myriad of limits on our attire in the work place in general, regardless of whether we are employed by the state, a corporation or a private business. Dress codes are commonplace, the strictest version of which are uniforms, with some reflecting the profession (police and firemen and judges), and others the company (Air Canada stewardesses, UPS drivers and the army of McDonald’s employees, i.e.). There are many reasons for uniforms, but what they have in common is that they are non-negotiable. You want to work for us? Here’s what you’re going to wear. If you don’t like it, don’t bother showing up on Monday morning.
Other requirements are specifically determined with security in mind. Hard hats. Steel-toed boots. Gloves and glasses and hazmat suits. Nobody would argue those.
And then there are the no-brainers. These are not specified in writing, and for good reason – because they are, except to the truly delirious and those taking devil’s advocacy a step too far, painfully obvious. The company policy booklet should not need to specify that you can’t show up to your office job in a bikini, nor that it is unacceptable to service the public in your PJs.
So no - we don’t have full-fledged freedom when it comes to what we wear in the work place. Never did and never will.
But then what about jewelry, or other items that express our individuality, such as tattoos, or piercings? If this law were to go unchallenged, I could technically wear a T-shaped pendant if my first name is Tania, but not be allowed to wear a crucifix. I could wear a charm in the shape of a star as long as it’s not inside a circle and susceptible to being mistaken for a Wiccan symbol. I could wear a nose ring if I’m a punk, but not if I’m a Hindu.
With tattoos, the slope becomes even more slippery. Sometimes it’s a matter of where it is on the body, and whether or not it can be easily covered up, regardless of what it actually represents. Oftentimes, a simple tattoo of a butterfly or a flower will be accepted even if easily visible. But what if the new prospective hiree has ink in the very same place as the long-time employee, except this one is not of a sun but a star of David? What if, pushing it further, it’s a swastika, which was used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions before it got hijacked by the Nazis? What then?
Which leads us back to clothing – not the actual piece of cloth, but any message it might carry. In agreement with the new law, I cannot wear any clothing that represents my religion - therefore my beliefs - but it would be perfectly OK to wear a T-shirt that says “My religion is better than your religion”. Because those are just words, not symbols.
Which in turn leads us back to religious symbols. The proponents of Bill 21 argue that it is critical that no provincial employee show any sign that could be misconstrued as religious bias. But if someone is truly biased, how is removing any visible symbol going to remedy that? You can paint a poisonous apple red all you want, it won’t make it any less poisonous. I’m a big fan of cards on the table, and someone who shows their religious colour is no threat to me. Plus, if I’m the one doing the hiring, I’m looking for the best possible candidate, not the one who best hides what God he or she prays to.
Mostly, it’s difficult to ignore the irony in the fact that this law has been passed, among others, to “free Muslim women from the oppression of wearing the veil”, with the lawmakers somehow completely oblivious to the fact that forcing women to remove this item against their will is really just another form of oppression.
Muslim women of course insist that they wear the veil by choice, and in some, maybe many, maybe even most cases, this is true, at least for those living in the Western world. But it’s extremely difficult to measure the impact of, if not religious, then at the very least cultural traditions that are deeply engrained, and who knows exactly where that line even gets drawn. But before the self-appointed liberators rejoice, ask yourself if we, the supposed woke, don’t deal with certain cultural pressures ourselves, especially in the case of women. In a business setting, is it not still expected, to some degree, that a female wear heels? Make-up? That her hair be made? We’re not as far apart as we think sometimes.
The worst fallout of this new bill is the moral legitimization of overt racism. By saying we do not accept people expressing their religion via their physical appearance, we have in effect encouraged bigots to voice that rejection out loud, and sometimes even act on it. Mental, emotional and, in extreme cases, physical harm has come to some of those suffering the consequences of this hatred, none more so than Muslims, who have born the brunt of the discrimination. And let’s not kid ourselves: Muslims are the intended targets of these new legislations, but you can’t just single out one religion, so the hypocrites have officially included them all and now use that “fact” as justification.
But then what is the answer? How do you resolve this?
First, by nixing the bill, as it is, in fact, discriminatory. While it is true that other basic freedoms come with their own fine print (freedom of speech does not trump the laws on hate speech. i.e.) this particular bill is all about restricting freedoms of certain individuals while protecting nothing and nobody at all, unless you count the easily offended and those insisting on living inside their bubbles.
And then you apply common sense.
Utopian, I know.
But we can do this. We can collectively be reasonable and fair, and judge each situation individually. We are quite capable of differentiating between an item that poses a security risk in a given setting (a kirpan, for example, for a school teacher) and one that does not (kippah, anyone?). We can easily determine if an item poses a hazard or interferes with the requirements of a certain position (a turban will not fit under the helmet of a motorcycle cop). Those in charge of hiring new blood can surely figure out the best candidate based on qualifications, not appearance, while members of the public will have to trust that these people were hired on their merit and nothing else.
Of course some cases will always be ambiguous, or complex, or sensitive. But we need to let those who form the core of that particular workplace to weigh the options and make the most educated decision. Will the outcome always be fair? Probably not. Judgment is part of human nature. There will always be a chance you weren’t hired because you advertised your religious colours. But there’s also a chance that you weren’t hired because you look too much like the interviewer’s ex. You’ll never know for sure.
Regardless - leaving the issue to be handled by individuals who know exactly what is at stake in a particular situation, at least, allows everyone to rise to the challenge, to consider the unique aspects of the case at hand, and ultimately to do the right thing. Collectively.
What IS certain is that enshrining these dos and don’ts into legal guidelines is not only wrong, it is counter-productive, and rather than help create a more open and fair society, it will further divide. The proof is all around us.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.